The Caesarian section has a fascinating, if largely apocryphal history. In all likelihood it was probably a procedure of last resort to save the unborn child when its mother was already dead or near death. That the famous Julius Caesar –like Shakespeare’s MacDuff- was ‘from his mother’s womb untimely ripped’ seems unlikely, however appealing the etymology. In fact, the name may well derive from the Latin verb ‘caedere’ –to cut- and hence the cognomen (originally a nickname). Pliny the Elder, according to Wikipedia, ‘refers to a certain Julius Caesar (an ancestor of the famous Roman statesman) as ab utero caeso, “cut from the womb” giving this as an explanation for the cognomen “Caesar” which was then carried by his descendants.’
At any rate, before the days of appropriate antisepsis let alone adequate analgesia, the survival rate for both the mother and baby would have been dismally low. And despite isolated reports of its use throughout recorded history in such diverse countries as India, China, and even Babylon, it was always a procedure of desperation. A triumph, as Samuel Johnson once wrote in another context, ‘of hope over experience.’
Unfortunately it has now become merely a triumph of experience -a default position assumed at what seems to be the slightest provocation. The fact that it is an operation that can be booked in advance under some circumstances, and therefore superimpose a degree of predictability on the scaffolding of the anticipated chaos of labor, has been seen as desirable in some quarters. And in fairness, there are those for whom labor carries undue risks for either mother or baby and its avoidance would be prudent if not lifesaving. The issue, I think, is in the interpretation of risk.
The other, perhaps more problematic concern, is that of choice. At least in a system of limited resources, or one in which the public purse is providing medical coverage, one could ask whether an elective Caesarian section for no other compelling obstetrical reason than patient choice, is a sustainable option. Or even a desirable one.
So, what about in a user-pay system? Is it merely a matter of supply and demand: build more hospitals to accommodate the needs and whims of those who can afford them? Is that an efficient use of their resources? Is it even an ethically defensible position? The matter has finally prompted the Brazilian government to wade in, as an article in the July 7/15 BBC news reports: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-33421376
Of course, there are many reasons for elective Caesarian sections –some of which are the result of previous and unsuccessful attempts at vaginal delivery that necessitated Caesarian deliveries at that time. The desire to avoid a similar and frustrating trial of vaginal delivery is certainly understandable –if not always necessary- under those circumstances. These are the so-called elective repeat Caesarians. Others, as I indicated, are obstetrically mandated because of developing or pre-existing risk factors –once again, hard to argue against. There is an interesting and informative article that attempts to put the Canadian experience (2007-2011) into perspective –a classification system (the Robson Classification System) that can be used to make international comparisons in Caesarian section rates: http://www.jogc.com/abstracts/full/201303_Obstetrics_1.pdf
But getting back to the situation in Brazil. As the BBC article suggests, ‘Eighty-five per cent of all births in Brazilian private hospitals are caesareans and in public hospitals the figure is 45%’. And the new government rules ‘…oblige doctors to inform women about the risks and ask them to sign a consent form before performing a caesarean. Doctors will also have to justify why a caesarean was necessary. They will have to fill in a complete record of how the labour and birth developed and explain their actions.’ That they may not have been doing this routinely before is troubling, to say the least.
Also, ‘Each pregnant woman will now be assigned medical notes which record the history of her pregnancy, which she can take with her if she changes doctors.’ I would have thought this practice would have been universal and intuitive -without the need for a government fiat.
But, as worrisome as all of this seems, there is another, perhaps more subtle pressure on the woman to opt for a Caesarian delivery in Brazil: ‘Women who want to give birth naturally in a private hospital have reported finding all the beds are reserved for scheduled deliveries. There have been numerous reports of women going into labour without a caesarean scheduled and being forced to travel from hospital to hospital in search of a bed.’ And as Pedro Octavio de Britto Pereira, an obstetrician and professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, said in an interview with BBC Brazil last year, “The best way to guarantee yourself a bed in a good hospital is to book a caesarean.”
Of course the blame does not wholly fall on the medical profession there –nor even, perhaps, on their preferred management strategies in pregnancy. ‘Researchers say many women also see caesareans as more civilized and modern, and natural birth as primitive, ugly and inconvenient. In Brazil’s body-conscious culture, where there is little information given about childbirth, there is also huge concern that natural birth can make women sexually unattractive.’
It is always dangerous to judge another country and another culture by our own standards. Our own sensibilities. And yet the risks are transnational and universal. They do not disappear simply because of a differing national mythos. Surgery is surgery; complications are inevitable co-travellers with it in spite of all precautions, and good intentions -the hidden, unwanted occupants of every operating theatre. And while we may never be able to stem the tide of primary elective Caesarians –even education on the subject has challenges overcoming fear or fashion- we may be able to convince women that their choice does not come without baggage. Unintended risks. To journey through a new geography, it helps to have thought about it first; planned the route to avoid unnecessary problems; consulted a knowledgeable guide –someone who will travel along with you. And remember what Seneca wrote: ‘Be wary of the man who urges an action in which he himself incurs no risk’.